Tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine includes a fantastic article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner about Footsteps, the organization that helps people leave the super-strict ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in which they were raised.


What kind of person wants to leave safety and start from the beginning, sounding different from everyone else, not knowing what to say, not knowing how to make a living — not knowing how to read past a sixth-grade level, because English is taught as an afterthought, if at all, in many of these schools?

Much of the article revolves around the 2015 suicide of Faigy Mayer, who jumped from the top of a New York City building because, it was said, she suffered from depression after being cut off from her family. It’s something a lot of former Hasidic Jews have felt at some point or another.

But that’s why this organization is so important.

… Footsteps is a lot like the organized religion it’s designed to help its members transition out of: Each exists to make sense of an utterly baffling world. But whereas religion seeks to reassure you that you’re not alone, Footsteps seeks to reassure you when you realize that you are.

Incidentally, we’ve written about former Hasids and spoken to them, too. Check out those posts to get a fuller picture about what they’re going though.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Scott for the link)

When I read about Abby Stein in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, I knew I wanted to talk to her. She’s 24, a student in Brooklyn, and the descendant of a founder of Hasidic Judaism, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (also known as the Baal Shem Tov).

Four years ago, she left the Hasidic faith in which she was raised, and about a month ago, she came out publicly — including to her conservative family — as a transgender woman.

When it comes to gender roles, Hasidic Judaism is arguably one of the strictest religions in how it upholds specific rules and responsibilities for men and women. Understandably, Stein’s coming out hasn’t gone over well with her family, particularly with her father. But she’s found a safe space in liberal Jewish circles where she’s accepted for her true self, and she blogs regularly to share news about her gender identity, her journey, and her relationship to her past and present faith.

Stein and I talked on the phone about her interest not only in atheism, but in progressive Judaism, humanism, philosophy, and the many other pieces that make up who she is.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


You left the Hasidic faith four years ago, recently came out as trans, and now you also identify as an atheist. Tell me about how all of that converged.

I always say that I believe in Judaism more than I believe in god. So, like, I have become very involved in [Judaism] as a culture, but my beliefs or my disbeliefs haven’t changed.

Can you tell me more about what it means to believe more in Judaism than believe in God?

Belief is maybe a very strong word. I’d say I relate to Judaism more.

You relate to it more. What does that mean to you?

Philosophically, if you talk about God as a higher power, as I like to say, the bogeyman in the sky, I don’t believe in that at all. But I think in Judaism, specifically liberal and progressive Judaism, there’s a lot that resonates with me. I like a lot of their ideas, I like the community life, and also, interestingly enough, especially in the U.S., the liberal and progressive Jewish communities are usually more accepting and more progressive than the general American population. Some of them have their own ideas about what God could be or couldn’t be, but it’s totally open to the idea that you can be an atheist and be part of it. There are a lot of members who don’t believe in anything and participate in the community fully.

In that progressive community, are you out as trans?

Oh, not only out, they have been supportive above and beyond. The rabbi of this community, the week after I came out, gave a whole sermon, a Friday night speech to a few hundred people, about coming out and supporting, and mentioned me by name. They are not only accepting, they are totally okay with it. The rabbi in that community is the one who helped me come out to my father.

What was it like coming out to your father?

Basically what I expected. I left religion four years ago for philosophical and ideological reasons. The reason why I started studying philosophy was triggered by the discomfort of my own body. But the reason I left wasn’t that. I left because I didn’t believe in it. [My father] had the biggest problem with me not believing in Judaism the way that he believes in it — the traditional way. He had a bigger problem with that than if I’d said, “It’s all BS and I don’t want anything to do with it.”

So our relationship was kind of complicated, and I knew this could be a deal-breaker. I just had no choice, and I was kind of ready for that. So I came out to him and I really tried my best to talk in his language. He didn’t know this existed, at all, just like I didn’t until I was 19. So when I came out to him I had to explain to him the basics. And he didn’t get it, he was in total shock, he didn’t even understand it fully. And I haven’t heard from him since.

And how long ago was that?

Two weeks.

How are you feeling about it?

The first hour I felt very shaken, but after that, totally fine. In some ways it seems easier that way. I mean, I definitely still want to have some kind of relationship with him, but [if I do] it will also come with a lot of guilt, or [him] trying to change it, and it’ll be a lot of emotional stress with it. So in some ways I would say it’s less anxiety. But then there’s obviously the part where you still want to have a relationship with your family.

Have you come out to anybody else in your family?

Everyone, I‘m out to the whole world by now. I didn’t come out to anyone in person. I did send a long text message to all of my siblings, all of them who have texting, the night I came out in public. Only two of them responded, one of them very negatively. One of them was actually kind of supportive — not really supportive, but just OK, telling me, “I can’t imagine what you went through, know that I’m always here for you,” but that’s it. And that was 2/13.

You have 13 siblings?

I have 12 siblings, so I’m one of out 13. And now eight of them are married, so it’s kind of 20.

Which one are you in the 13?

Interestingly enough, I am the sixth. So my mother had five girls, then what she thought was five boys, and then three girls. So I’m the sixth after the five girls. So I’m the first “boy,” supposedly, after five girls. So now I’m thinking, that was just a mistake, she had six girls and then four boys.

Were you taught anything specific about gender roles growing up, and if so, what?

Gender was basically just male and female. Even when we learned in the Talmud about other gender identities, mainly intersex, it was never even hinted that something like that actually exist[s] today. I was not aware that [there] are different gender identities until I was 19. This is why I thought I am crazy for feeling female, thinking I am the only person in the world with these feelings.

What sort of impact, if any, do you think it has that a descendant of a founder of Hasidic Judaism is coming out as trans?

I would say that the biggest “extra” impact my family’s status made is the amount of coverage within the Hasidic community and outside of it. The fact that so many people know my family makes it inevitable that people will talk about it. Furthermore, this also had an impact on my readiness to talk in public. When I got to the point of realizing that I have to come out, I thought a lot about how it will impact my family. As much as they don’t treat me well (nicely put), I still don’t want to cause them “extra” pain. However, when I considered the fact that people are going to talk about it anyway, even if I don’t write about it, and from the other side writing about [it] will help so many people, I concluded that there is simply no reason to hold back.

Do you think anybody will think of your family — or of the faith — differently?

I don’t think that my coming-out will effect my family in any negative way – within their community. About the community as a whole, it is possible that now that people see how they treat, or rather mistreat people of LGBT+ experience, some people outside the community will get an even more negative view on them, [on] ultra-Orthodoxy, but I think that depends a lot on how they treat it, and so far, the only hate I got was coming from them. In some ways, they are bashing themselves.

In the future, what would you like your relationship to be with the faith you were raised in? Is there any part of it you want to carry with you?

I am kind of carrying a lot of it. The community I am part of has a huge respect and acceptance for science. There is no question about evolution or any scientific reasoning, [and] when they do talk about God, it’s very loosely, could mean anything, could mean nothing, so I relate to that. And the other aspect is the community life. I like the idea of, for example, the Shabbat on Saturday. I don’t keep it in the traditional sense, I use my phone, I use electricity, but I like the idea of having a day in the week that is your day of rest. So I usually wouldn’t do homework on [that] day, just take it as my day off. I get a lot of friends who tell me, “Just because you want a day of rest, take Tuesday!” And my response is that [they’re] right, I could technically take Tuesday. But Saturday has been going on for generations, Saturday is where I have the structure, where I have the food that I like, I have the songs, I have the community values and everything. So I like it.

So you do identify as an atheist, but you also identify with elements of your Jewish upbringing. Is that right?

I don’t think they have anything to do with each other. I honestly don’t think there’s a contradiction, they’re just two separate things.

What does being an atheist mean to you?

It’s very Humanistic. It’s not about a belief; it’s an understanding that there is simply no reason or evidence or whatever; there’s just as much chance that there’s a God named Yahweh as there’s a God named the Flying Spaghetti Monster. To me they both make exactly the same sense, or nonsense. I don’t think there’s anyone in the sky who is looking at you and going to punish you and tell you what to do. We have to be good to each other not because someone is going to punish you, but because we’re all humans. I see not only that morality and being a good human is possible without religion, I think it’s way more advanced and honest and open without the idea of a God. And the facts show that, in the people who are usually fighting for civil rights and the people fighting against [them].

Do you see any parallels between being an atheist and being trans?

Being trans in some ways is very similar to being an atheist, in that some people don’t grasp it. People that come from different backgrounds just [say], “What do you mean you don’t believe in God?” They don’t get you. To them [religion] is just so obvious, and I feel like I keep on having that with gender, also. Some people just have in their mind very firm ideas of gender, and they just can’t get it into their head. With my father I had this exact experience. For a while he thought I was going to convert to Christianity instead of [understanding] I was not going to be religious. Even on his face, [it was] the same reaction when I told him I’m becoming a woman, like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

What advice would you have for someone who’s growing up in a conservative Jewish community and discovering that they’re trans?

Growing up, I didn’t know that [being trans] exists. I would beat myself up and think that I had to be crazy because I was the only one who was having these feelings. So first, they have to know they are not the only ones, and that’s already a tremendous help. I think the biggest part to know is that it’s totally possible. There are other people, there are supportive people. As much as you might be afraid of rejection from your family that probably would happen, there’s still a lot of people who would support you no matter what. It’s very hard for people who have to transition in gender and also transition in religion. I think it’s important to know there are so many Jewish LGBT organizations that are prepared to help, which means you can stay within certain comforts of what you were raised in. You don’t have to become an atheist in order to transition. And I think my last piece of advice is always get a therapist, talk to a therapist.

(Image via Facebook)

Dear Richard,

I’m in a long-term relationship with a man raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish family. He and I are atheists happy to participate in Jewish culture, but lacking any interest in the spiritual side of things. His parents are both very observant. His mom converted before marrying his dad, and now runs a strict Jewish household.

My boyfriend and I started living together last year. His parents were initially very upset with this arrangement, since it signified that our interfaith (in their eyes) relationship was serious. Because I respect his parents and didn’t want to cause a rift in the family, I expressed to them a sincere willingness to convert someday. However, my boyfriend made it clear that the conversion would be for their sake, not mine or his. They seemed fine with this, and have since given us no trouble for living together.

After looking into conversion a little more deeply, I’ve learned that most rabbis will not allow someone to convert just for marriage. The expectation is that the convert holds a sincere faith in God and intends to live a Jewish life both spiritually and practically. Rabbis are expected to strongly discourage potential converts from converting (the tradition is to turn them away at least three times) to test their sincerity.

Problem is, I’m not sure I’m that good a liar.

There are aspects of the conversion process that appeal to me: I’d love to learn Hebrew, and I find Jewish culture and history interesting. Still, I’m very uncomfortable with the notion of lying about belief in God for the lengthy conversion process. Of course, I’m also uncomfortable with the notion of causing a lifelong rift between my boyfriend and his family.

I wish I could turn to a Jewish person about this, but I’m worried it would be disrespectful. Any ideas on how to best approach the situation?


Dear L,

Firstly, you need to sort out what belongs to you, what belongs to your boyfriend, and what belongs to his family.

Twice in your letter you say you don’t want to “cause a rift between my boyfriend and his family.” Any rift between them is his and their responsibility, not yours. By his own volition he has discarded the beliefs of his family, and that would be the essential cause of any rift. You did not cause him to be an atheist. His relationship with you, another atheist, is simply another choice that he has made. It only makes his earlier choice more obvious.

Your boyfriend’s parents also have choices. They can choose to accept him as he is, or reject him in ways that can be appallingly cruel. Either way that goes, they can choose to acknowledge that it is his choice to go “off the derech,” or they can try to blame a convenient scapegoat, such as you.

By thinking it is your responsibility to prevent a rift in his family, you are buying into the blame. Don’t.

I do not understand what exactly you meant by “However, my boyfriend made it clear that the conversion would be for their sake, not mine or his.” It does not sound like he made it clear that you don’t believe in God. It wouldn’t make much sense for them to approve if they knew the conversion would be a fraud, so I’m going to assume that they still think you believe what you would be affirming.

If you want to show respect for his family and satisfy your own intellectual interest by studying Hebrew, Jewish culture and history, that’s great, go ahead, but you don’t have to go through a phony conversion with an elaborate charade of feigned belief in their religious claims. Lying and faking a deep, sincere conversion would be a very disrespectful thing to do to the rabbi, to your boyfriend’s parents, and to yourself.

And the truth will out.

Your having to lie and pretend true devotion would not be over at the end of the conversion process. You would probably have to keep the façade up for decades. His mother converted to Judaism and now runs a strict Jewish household. It seems likely that after your “conversion” you would be expected to do the same thing. Are you prepared to fake and fake and fake doing as the rabbis expect, “living a Jewish life both spiritually and practically” for the rest of his parents lives? Even if families relax their religious demands on a young couple, the pressure starts all over again when children arrive. As parents, will you have control over your kids’ education and any religious indoctrination, or will you have to draft them into the farce as well?

All this to prevent a “rift,” but a hidden rift of deceitful ingratiation will have already happened, and the two of you will be the ones doing it, rather than his parents.

Your boyfriend needs to step in and take an assertive and unambiguous stand toward his parents about how he expects them to show you respect just as you are. He does not have to fully “out” you or himself as atheists, (but in the long run that seems inevitable.) If anywhere along the way they reject you or the two of you, then that is their choice, their creation, their failing. It is their immaturity, lack of compassion, and lack of love. If that’s the choice they make, then you’re both better off without them.

If you want to show them respect, do it honestly, not by pretending something. If they are capable of showing you respect, it should be for the person you really are.

I wish a happy life for you and your boyfriend, and harmony with both of your families.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

You often hear from atheists who left Christianity and occasionally from atheists who left Islam. You rarely hear about atheists who leave ultra-orthodox Judaism.

But apparently, there are many non-believers in their ranks and they’re starting to tell their stories:

Matan (a pseudonym like all names in this article) was an ultra-Orthodox Jew who stopped believing several years ago. “I don’t believe there is a God, but I also don’t really rule it out,” he said. “It can’t have an unequivocal answer. Our understanding as humans ends somewhere…Religion tells you exactly how to understand things, how to interpret them. This is exactly the problem.”

Matan was not alone. He was part of a growing phenomenon found deep within ultra-Orthodox society, part of a large group of haredim of all streams and divisions who call themselves the “Marranos,” secret Jews – haredim against their will, who have stopped believing, but are forced to live a lie and hide it from the people around them. But contrary to haredim who openly leave behid the faith to live a secular lifestyle, these “Marranos” look ultra-Orthodox on the outside, but their inner world is the exact opposite.

That’s only one example; the full article has a number of them.

Adam Lee hopes that more will be willing to come out and that we’ll be ready to welcome them

What these people need more than anything is a safe place to land, a secular community where they can be their true selves without fear of reprisal. They need, too, to be made aware that they have kindred spirits out in the world, that there’s a life outside ultra-Orthodox Judaism. If the worldwide atheist community continues to grow, we may soon be able to offer that to them.

I agree with Adam. If anyone wanting to leave any faith knew there was a place they could go where they would be welcomed and accepted, who knows how many people would leave the fold.

Greeting everyone, this post is by Ron Gold.

One of the reasons I respect Judaism more than most religions is that the faith mandates a relatively humane treatment towards animals. In contrast, every now and then I run into a Christian who seems to take the perspective that God put animals on the Earth for humans to exploit, putting them on a similar level to resources like oil or timber.  But Jews rarely take that view, and indeed, Israel might be the first country to ban fur:

The international anti-fur campaign, backed by animal rights activists such as Brigitte Bardot and Sir Paul McCartney, has picked Israel as the perfect starting point because the fur trade is tiny — worth about $1 million a year — and because, under Jewish tradition, the undue suffering of animals is forbidden.

“The market here is not that big,” said Josh Rotbart, a legal representative for the Israeli organisation Let The Animals Live, which also runs an animal rescue centre in Lod, near Tel Aviv. “We are not talking about Canada or the US or China. It’s a small industry and it’s pretty easy to ban a small industry. It’s hot here. You don’t really need to wear fur.”

The chief opposition comes from ultra-Orthodox Jews who wear shtreimels (pictured below), a hat made out of sable fur. However, I think they would be better off using a synthetic material, particularly since they might accidentally be wearing someone’s pet:

The campaign began when an Israeli news station reported that much of the “fake” fur being imported from China was, in fact, made from the pelts of cats and dogs.

Yikes, that’s some highly disturbing stuff, and another reason to avoid fur all together.

Whether the ban succeeds or not is anyone’s guess, though Rotbart says he is “pretty optimistic” of an eventual victory.  I can’t speak for other atheists, but I’m hoping he is right.

However, one thing I am sure of is that the United States won’t be banning fur anytime soon.  I happened to witness a protest outside a fur store yesterday, and it was attended by exactly three people.

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